​Better modelling needed to effectively reduce methane emissions: researchers

Image: Joey Podlubny/JWN

The Canadian government announced new regulations on April 26 that aim to cut methane emissions in the oil and gas sector in half.

The announcement follows on Alberta’s announcement earlier in the week that it has also introduced new regulations to cut methane emissions in the natural gas sector by 45%.

B.C. has similar plans, which have yet to be implemented, as do federal governments in the U.S. and Mexico.

There’s just one problem: 45% of what?

One of the problems with methane emissions is that there isn’t a lot of reliable data on what they are now, so until better measurements and estimates are developed, it will be difficult to know if the industry is meeting the new targets.

It’s generally agreed that reducing methane emissions from the natural gas sector could put a significant dent in the industry’s greenhouse gas (GHG) profile, since methane is orders of magnitude worse as a greenhouse gas than CO2.

The Canadian government says its new regulations would reduce GHG emissions by 20 millions tonnes per year.

But while CO2 emissions from combustion are easy to estimate and measure, methane from upstream sources – wells, pumps, valves, pipelines, processing plants – is far more challenging.

For starters, there is naturally occurring methane from a variety of sources that have to be accounted for – from cattle, swamps, landfills and even natural methane seeps.

There is also high variation in methane leakage, depending on the type of engineering and infrastructure used, and a general lack of baseline data.

But researchers at the University of Calgary Johns Hopkins and Canadian Energy Research Institute have come up with a new modelling approach that may help governments develop more accurate baselines to work from.

Their approach involved estimating methane emissions from well completions in hydraulic fracturing, and then testing the estimates against actual measurements from well completions in the U.S. and Canada.

“We actually collected a large number of actual measurements and compared our results against those measurements,” Sarah Jordaan, a researcher specializing in climate and energy at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies, told Business in Vancouver.

“We estimated within a high level of confidence the actual emissions that have been measured what exactly the completion emissions look like.”

Their findings have been published in Science Direct.

It is worth noting that they found the methane emissions from well completions in Canada to be lower than in the U.S.

Although it is shorter lived in the atmosphere, methane has higher heat insulating properties than CO2, making it even worse, from a global warming perspective.

Advocates of strong climate change policies have argued that carbon taxes should be applied to upstream methane emissions. But as Jordaan points out, that would be difficult to do because it is hard to know with any degree of accuracy how much methane may be escaping from natural gas wells and infrastructure.

“Quite often the typical argument is, within climate policy, just put a carbon tax on it,” Jordaan said. “Well, put a carbon tax on what? If you are actually combusting a fossil fuel, we have a very good idea of how much CO2 is (produced). This is a different case.”

The same challenge arises when trying to legislate methane emissions reductions.

"It comes down to: you can manage what you can measure," Jordaan said.

Canada’s new regulations aim to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas by 40% to 45% below 2012 levels by 2025. But without an accurate baseline, Jordaan said it will be difficult for governments to know if the new regulations are working.

“Without a robust baseline, reduction targets lose meaning," Jordaan wrote in a recent article.

Jordaan and her fellow researchers chose well completions to test their modelling, but she said it could be used for other methane sources, as well.

“We chose completion emissions due to the fact that we had data available, but certainly the same type of approach could be applied to different types of measurements.

“One could take a sample of compressor stations, for example, and then estimate what potential emissions would look like, and then test estimations relative to what the actual leaks are looking like.”

Asked if the modelling they developed could be used to get a better handle on methane emissions from the natural gas sector in B.C., Jordaan said it could, but would require the government to oblige the industry to make emissions data available.

She said the industry already has a lot of data, but it is not readily available to government scientists and non-government scientists and academics.

“They need to enable analysts, scientists and economists to have access to the data such that they can actually start to make these models public,” Jordaan said.

— Business in Vancouver

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